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For more than two decades, the Catholic Church has grappled with a series of clergy sexual abuse scandals and lawsuits. The cases have cost an estimated $2 billion in settlements and have shaken the faith of many of the church's members. Still more have expressed outrage with the church leadership, which has responded by making significant changes in its disciplinary procedures but often by characterizing the attention to the cases as an attack on the church.As the sexual abuse crisis has unfolded, it has become clear the issue is more than a passing storm. The church is undergoing nothing less than an epochal shift: It pits those who hold fast to a more traditional idea of protecting bishops and priests above all against those who call for more openness and accountability. The battle lines are drawn between the church and society at large, which clearly clamors for accountability, and also inside the church itself.The crisis also has pit the moral legacies of two popes against each other: the towering and modernizing John Paul II, who nonetheless did little about sexual abuse; and his successor, Benedict XVI, who in recent years, at least, has taken the issue of pedophile priests more seriously.But a recent wave of disclosures in Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and in the United States have led to increasing scrutiny of Benedict and his actions while a bishop in Germany and as a cardinal who later headed the Vatican's bureaucracy.
In May 2011, the Vatican directed its bishops to make fighting sexual abuse of minors by clerics a priority. The directives, detailed in a letter, are among the clearest to emerge from the Vatican since the sexual abuse scandal erupted in Europe.
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